1. Health
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Retin-A (Tretinoin)

Treating Acne with Retin-A


Updated June 19, 2014

Retin-A (tretinoin) is a powerful acne treatment medication, derived from vitamin A. It can be used to treat mild to moderately severe acne, and is especially effective for those with comedonal acne (many blackheads and whiteheads).

Retin-A is available in cream or gel form, by prescription only and is also known as Retin-A Micro, Avita, Renova, and generic tretinoin.

Many acne sufferers swear by their Retin-A medication, and for some it is an excellent treatment choice. Its advantages go beyond clearing acne -- for example, people who have post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation may find that Retin-A reduces the look of dark spots and discoloration left by acne breakouts. Also, adult acne sufferers benefit from the other popular use of Retin-A: It can reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles.

How it Works:

All tretinoin products work by speeding up cell turnover rates, rapidly exfoliating the skin and decreasing the buildup of dead cells within the follicle. This, in turn, reduces the formation of comedones. Retin-A also makes existing blackheads less "sticky," helping the blockages make their way to the surface to be expelled.


Like most acne medications, Retin-A takes time to work. You will likely not see any change in the skin for several weeks, and it may take several months for noticeable improvement to occur.

In fact, it is not uncommon for patients to have an initial worsening of acne breakouts. While annoying, it usually isn't cause for alarm. If you do experience a flare-up, let your doctor know, but don't stop using your Retin-A unless he or she instructs you otherwise.


Common Usage Directions:

Retin-A is used once per day, or once every other day, usually at bedtime. The skin should first be washed with a mild cleanser. Twenty or 30 minutes after cleansing, Retin-A is applied to affected areas. This wait time is important to ensure completely dry skin. Applying Retin-A while skin is even the slightest bit damp invites irritation.


Just a thin layer of Retin-A is needed to do the job. A pea-sized amount is enough for the entire face. Steer clear of the entire eye area. This delicate skin is easily irritated by Retin-A.

While you’re at it, avoid the area around the mouth (especially near the corners), the lips, and the creases around the nose. Use as little product as possible on the chin. These areas all have a tendency to become uncomfortably dry and flaky with Retin-A use.

It can be tempting to use more than is directed in an attempt to speed improvement of the skin. Unfortunately, doing so won't clear acne any faster but instead will leave you with skin that is painfully irritated. It's best to avoid temptation and follow your doctor's usage directions carefully.


Possible Side Effects:

Nearly all Retin-A users develop dryness of the skin, to some degree. Other common side effects include redness, peeling or flaking, itching, and general skin irritation. These side effects may be worse during the first few weeks of use, and gradually improve as the skin becomes more tolerant of the treatment.


Retin-A can also cause excessive redness, swelling, blistering or crusting of the skin. Some patients may notice a lightening or darkening of the skin.

It's worth noting that many people experience a stinging sensation when Retin-A is applied. Some users feel just a slight stinging; others describe a more acute burning sensation. Luckily, this feeling usually subsides after a few minutes.

Another result of Retin-A use is photosensitivity, or an increased sensitivity to the sun. While using Retin-A, you will be much more susceptible to sunburn and sun damage. Do your best to avoid sun exposure. And yes, this includes tanning beds. You must use a sunscreen of at least SPF 15 every day; SPF 30 is even better.

There have been rare case reports of birth defects in women who use oral tretinoin.  Because Retin-A use hasn't been extensively studied in pregnant women, most dermatologists encourage women to use contraception while using the medication.

Because tretinoin is made from vitamin A, people should not take additional supplements containing high doses of vitamin A.

Tips for Using Retin-A:

  • Use a moisturizer daily. Regular use of an oil-free moisturizer will help control the inevitable dryness that comes with Retin-A use.
  • Take care in choosing your skin care products. Abrasive scrubs, astringents, aftershave, exfoliating products, or products containing drying ingredients can cause burning and discomfort.
  • Flaking or peeling skin can be very gently sloughed away with a washcloth. Take care not to scrub too hard!
  • If your skin seems excessively irritated, dry, or uncomfortable, let your doctor know. He or she may advise you to scale back use to once every two or three days.
  • Tell your doctor if you are using other products containing acne-fighting ingredients, such as benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, resorcinol or salicylic acid. These ingredients may interact with Retin-A. In fact, your doctor should be aware of all medications you are currently taking, as there may be other medications that also could interact with Retin-A.


Next Steps:

Retin-A (Tretinoin) FAQs
More Retin-A Info from Drugs A-Z

What's the Difference Between Retin-A and Tretinoin?

Watch the Video: Is Retin-A Right for Me?

Sources: "Tretinoin Topical." MedlinePlus. 03 April 2000. U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health. 9 Sep 2011.

  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Acne
  4. Treatment Options
  5. Prescription Topicals
  6. Retin-A (Tretinoin)

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.